By Brad Frenette
Published: Wednesday, October 14, 2009, National Post
There’s a bit of the wild-eyed preacher in Dave Salmoni. Big in voice and stature, the zoologist turned Animal Planet star is like an evangelist for big cats, or perhaps a modern-day version of Old Testament prophet Daniel. Salmoni recently exercised his own faith by spending six months in the wilds of Erindi, an eco-tourism game park in Namibia. Accompanied by a film crew during the day and alone in a small tent at night, his mission was to engage a pride of human-hating rogue lions and get them used to being in the company of humans.
“These lions had been escaping, been cattle raiding, they’d been going after people and had been marked for destruction,” Salmoni recalls across a boardroom table in Toronto. When the owner of the game park asked for Salmoni’s help to calm the lions, so they could be observed by tourists, he agreed to take on the project, and pitched it as a new show for Animal Planet called Into the Pride.
Aside from the challenge of living among lions, Salmoni, who was born and raised in Sarnia, Ont., took it as a chance to test his own limits: “I was a few years into a TV career, and spending a heck of a lot of time in boutique hotels. I wasn’t sure if at 33 I could do it anymore.”
Salmoni’s career with animals started in his last year of a biology degree at Laurentian University. His research project was to work with Canada’s Ministry of Natural Resources to manage some nuisance black bears near Sudbury, Ont. From there, he worked with big cats as a trainer, and that led to a career presenting on Animal Planet and running his own South African-based production company. His television work brought him back to that early research project – keeping animals safe in the wild.
With so few wild spaces left in Africa, a proper reserve is a haven for big game predators, a safe place from the persecution of protective cattle farmers and greedy poachers. The troubled pride adopted by Erindi consisted of 11 lions – including the alpha male, dubbed Brutus by Salmoni, his younger brother, Otis, and the pride’s most fervent human-hater, the dominant female, Cleo. Over the course of the series, the five-part drama plays out to an almost Shakespearean degree, as brothers clash, Cleo asserts her dominance and the outsider works for acceptance. And, in the end, the pride must humble itself in order to survive.
As that outsider, Salmoni was part threat, part curiosity. And while it’s no spoiler to say he made it out alive, there were some very close calls.
After six months in the bush, Salmoni emerged with a new TV show, some disorientation and an assurance that he accomplished his task.
“They aren’t threatening people anymore; the people know how to live with them better. [Erindi is] actually considering getting another pride. So by our work, they’ve decided to go save other prides.”
And he hopes his message rings longer than the run of the series. When asked how people can help Africa’s lions, his answer is delivered like a Sunday morning sermon: “Go pay and have a safari. If you spend that money, all the people surrounding that wild space are supported. All the hospitals, the schools, AIDS research. That’s where your tourism dollars go, and it means the owner of that park can keep protecting that wild space”.
• Into the Pride airs on Animal Planet.